Editor's Note: Thomas Stevens is a former AMA Superbike Champion, Daytona 200 Rolex Pole Winner, as well as a former Factory Rider for Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki. We talked with Stevens at his home on Sanibel Island, Florida.
“I was a fan before I was a racer,” Stevens told me as I looked over his vast collection of racing memorabilia. His home sits on a golf course on picturesque Sanibel Island. Tucked away in the garage, behind some of his kids’ bikes and dirtbikes is the nondescript door to his trophy room. Upon entering, I was greeted by the collection of trophies, racing leathers, helmets and gloves, motorcycles and a variety of racing memorabilia he’d collected over the years. Years of motorsports history, all with its own story, filled the room from the ceiling down to the black and white checkerboard floor.
My eyes were immediately drawn to a photo on the wall of Stevens joined by motorcycle racing’s legends. I asked Stevens about the picture and he replied, “Here I am with Wayne Rainey, a big hero of mine...there’s Colin (Edwards) and myself and Rossi and all the dudes...They’re people just like us. They’re just really fast at racing bikes... Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey were my heroes growing up as a kid.” The photo was taken at a Yamaha Weekend of Champions event. Putting the riders in photo into perspective, Colin Edwards is two World Superbike Champion and 8 Hours of Suzuka winner. Wayne Rainey is a three time Grand Prix World Champion (now called MotoGP). Valentino Rossi is arguably one of the greatest motorcycle racers ever. In Europe, and much of the world, as motorcycle racing has yet to truly take off in America as it has elsewhere, he is an absolute superhero. He is to the motorcycle community what Michael Jordan is to basketball. With that said, I asked Stevens if he was proud to have been included in such company. His response? “It was cool,” as he smiled and crossed his arms across his chest.
What I immediately noted about Thomas Stevens was his confidence. He may not be a household name in the sports world; again, most motorcycle racers aren’t in America. However, the man clearly accomplished a tremendous amount during his racing years and he knew this to be true. Arrogant? Not at all. Confident? Absolutely. In addition to the photos of Stevens and the other “greats” of racing, Stevens had a plaque Yamaha gave him to commemorate their anniversary. “During the 50th Anniversary of Yamaha, we did the Weekend of Champions and this was presented to me by the president of Yamaha for contributions toward the heritage of the brand... for a kid who used to sweep floors at the local motorcycle shop, it’s a big deal,” Stevens said.
You can add humble to his personality as well. On multiple occasions during our talk, he took the time to recognize how lucky he was to achieve so much. He worked hard and it paid off. Thomas Stevens wasn’t some rich kid who bought his ride. He begged, borrowed and busted his ass to become a factory level ride.
Stevens described this journey to me, “I went from amateur to expert in the same year racing at Moroso(currently known as Palm Beach International Speedway). I beat Eddie Lawson’s track record over there and my career really started taking off. And that was 1986, I had a GSX-R 750 that I broke in half at Rockingham because I just took the lead in the expert race and didn’t notice to slow down when it started raining... and the thing pitched me off and hit the embankment and I broke the bike in half...and I had put it on my mom’s credit card at 18%... brought it home and got $700 for it. Luckily, the guy at the local bike shop gave me a loan on another bike to finish the season out. What happened was I took one of my friend’s bikes up to “little” Talladega just to shake it down because he had sort of a pseudo-superbike. And I went out, and this kid Kevin Rozzel, who at the time was the fastest guy in the south...winning all these races... and I’d go out and I could run with him... and about 5 laps in to a 10 lap sprint race, I didn’t have any money for a tire so I’d slow down because I was sliding so much. So John Ulrich came up to me and said, "How come this guy is beating you?: and I said, "because I don’t have enough money to buy a tire." So Ulrich said, "if I get you a tire can you beat him?" I said, "yeah." He got me a tire. I beat Rozzel and got the track lap record. He gave me his business card and said call me. That being said, it just took off from there. I was on a plane the next week and flew out. I started riding endurance races and we won the WERA series that year.”
After that success, came the call of every racer’s dream. Jim Allen from Dunlop tires got in touch with Stevens and told him Kenny Roberts wanted to talk to him. The Kenny Roberts. King Kenny. The guy motorcycle racers, to this day, hope to simply be in the same zip code with.
Of the initial contact with the brazen Roberts, Thomas Stevens said, “Jim Allen of Dunlop was another big influence on my career, he called me... I had tested the Yoshimura Superbike, didn’t get the deal... came within a half second of beating the track record... and the guy from Yoshimura called John Ulrich and told him I would never be a champion and I was like, "yeah...ok..." and, anyway, Jim Allen says to me, "here is Kenny Roberts phone number. He needs another kid to ride for him." So next thing you, I’m on a plane. Get picked up at the airport. We go out to dinner then head over to Kenny’s ranch. It’s like a 10,000 sqft cabin on a 100 acres. He’s got dirtbike tracks and this and that. He’s got world championship trophies sitting around his house. I slept in Kenny Jr.‘s room. It was a big deal. And the next day, he’s taking me back to the airport and I say, "Mr. Roberts..." and he says, "Call me Mr. Roberts again and I’ll fucking kick you out of the truck, my name is Kenny. Call me Kenny," because at the time he was only like 34 and I was around 22. And when he dropped me off I asked when I’d know if I got the deal. He goes, "If I hadn’t liked you from the beginning I would have dropped your ass off at the airport last night.” Stevens went on to ride a 250gp bike on Robert’s team for two years. The infamous John Kocinski was his team mate. I asked Stevens what he thought of Kocinski. There was a significant pause before answering.
“.............. He’s an interesting guy. He’s super talented. I was born with a lot of talent and a lot of drive. I was at like 99%... he had that 1% more. Guys like Gobert, Russell, DuHamel, Rainey they were able to get into another gear that I couldn’t get into no matter how hard I tried.”
Again, Thomas Stevens was confident, yet humble. His appreciation and respect for the truly great legends of the sport was something I admired in this man standing in front of me. A man who was a champion himself.
Stevens worked his way up to a Yamaha Factory Rider for the Vance & Hines Team. He won the AMA Superbike Championship in 1991. I asked him over the course of our discussion what his single greatest memory of racing was. He considers the moment he won the Superbike title to be his greatest moment. “Coming across the line and it seemed like my whole crew was jumping up an down... and then from there on, all that afternoon trying to soak as much in as I possibly could. The crew... they’re hauling me around... putting me on their shoulders. It was crazy,” said Stevens of the win. Thomas Stevens is a man with a piercing gaze, but he’s got an easy smile too. He was grinning ear to ear talking about the championship. In addition to the AMA Superbike title, Stevens raced the 8 Hours of Suzuka with Scott Russell, a World Superbike Champion and multi time Daytona winner. I asked him about Scott Russell and riding the grueling 8 Hours of Suzuka race, “Didn’t really like him at the time... but I didn’t like any of those guys” he replied laughing. As for Suzuka, “It was great. Fans were great. 150,000 fans there on race day. But it was a hard race. It’s weather like we have right now (referring to Florida’s 90 degree late summer days) but it’s 8 hours of racing. Brutal. And they hook you up to an IV, so when you get off the bike, you know, you go in and they pack you down with ice, they put the fluids to you...it goes like that (snaps his fingers)...next thing you know you’re putting your leathers back on”
Though proud of his accomplishments as a racer and making the transition into a successful life when the racing was over, Stevens did seem to have one regret, “My Dad passed away when I was 16 so he didn’t get to see my career rise. He was the best Dad in the world. He was my best friend. He used to say if we’re not having fun doing this, let’s go do something else. If I got third place, I’d come in crying. He’d say, "You did so good!" and I’d say, "Yeah, but I got third." And you know, one time I threw my helmet because I was so mad and he just said, "OK, if we’re not going to have fun we’re going to do something else.” This wisdom from his father was unfortunately juxtaposed to the reality of the “business” part of being a professional motorcycle racer. “It’s fun when you’re a kid and you’re an amateur. But once you become a professional, it’s not fun anymore. It’s not that it’s work because you’re doing something that you love, but the pressure that come along with being a paid factory rider, is completely different. You can’t just say... "Oh, I’m having a lot of fun." The part about traveling around the country and seeing the world is neat, bBut once you get into the position of being a factory level rider to where you come in, you know you have the best equipment, and if you don’t do the job there are no excuses except it stops right with the guy who is riding the bike. So, no, it’s not fun at that point,” Stevens explained. Without hesitation, he also brings up the fact that many of the people on the “business” side were good to him. When asked what bike he enjoyed the most, he said “I have to go with Yamaha. I still have a very good relationship with Bob Starr and everyone at Yamaha. Same with Dunlop. Same with Motul and AGV leathers and Arai helmets. I wear Arai because my hero, Freddie Spencer, wore one”.
The years after he left racing have treated Stevens well. He has a successful pool business that keeps him occupied on Sanibel and Captiva islands. It’s a lifestyle he enjoys. He relishes in the ability of being able to pick up his son from school on Friday afternoons on one of his motorcycles. He keeps a low profile and doesn’t flaunt his champion past. However, if you want to talk motorcycles, he’s more than happy to oblige. I asked him about what lead to his decision to retire, “I was 34 when I retired and I knew I couldn’t be around racing... Chuck Graves and I... I was going to go back and race Formula Extreme at the time and we weren’t very far apart, we were only about $30,000 apart from what I needed to make. I needed to make six figures if I was going to ride a motorcycle. But it just wasn’t in my heart anymore and once it left my heart I just thought I’m not willing to... you know, I’ve had multiple separations of my shoulder, I’ve broken my clavicle six times, I’ve sprained my elbows and broken my foot. I’ve been very lucky I’ve never spent a night in the hospital. Never broken any big bones, but that being said, it’s still a dangerous sport. I’ve hit my head... I’ve had five major concussions. I just started getting burned out. I was flying all over the place testing. You show for testing and you’re risking your life every time you get on that bike. You might not come back. It’s dangerous stuff. You get flicked off and pavement is not forgiving. The way things shook out at the end of my career with the Vance & Hines thing I just was... that part was a little disheartening. I gave it everything I had to finish out the year and I was just done. When I ended my career I had to stay away from the sport because I didn’t want to be around because I knew I’d be riding again. And at 34 years old, I didn’t want to be riding anymore to make money. I wanted to do something else with my life”
For any athlete, there is always the thought of one more chance. Though perfectly content in his retirement from racing (he enjoys the occasional track day or vintage event from time to time), I asked Thomas Stevens if he could go out for just one more race, where would it be? I also asked who’d he race against and he said, “Daytona has such a big history and to win the 200, which I never got to do, finished third there twice... set the track record... sat on the pole... there are a lot of great race tracks. Mid Ohio is a great race track. Road Atlanta is a great race track. I won Nationals at both of those, but I guess if it came down to prestige and the one you really want to put your name on... when it was the Daytona 200, not what it’s evolved into... because the Daytona 200 is both endurance, which fit in my genre as far as being in shape, yet you had to have a lot of speed. I’d like to go up against the guys I went up against before... Russell and DuHamel... you can go down the list. Wayne Rainey once told me you can only judge your career against the people you competed with. So, at the end of the day, I’d have to say my career was good because I got compete against people like Doug Polen and Scott Russell, Miguel DuHamel... guys like Eric Bostrom and Ben Bostrom... so that’s how I can judge my career.”
I interviewed Thomas Stevens on a school holiday. His kids were outside the door of his trophy room and anxious to spend some time with their dad. I could have spoken with Stevens all day. However, I politely ended the interview so he could enjoy the day with his children. As he opened the door, the kids came in and gave him a big hug. He introduced them and happily posed for a few photos with them. Thomas Stevens was all smiles now. He was standing in the middle of a room dedicated to all his accomplishments, in what he refers to as, his “other life” motorcycle racing. Yet, I could tell his family is what truly makes him happy now. His own father surely would have been proud that he took his advice to “have fun or do something else.” With a beautiful home on Sanibel, a successful business and a loving family, Thomas Stevens is clearly having fun.
AMA Superbike Champion, business man, great dad & all around good guy.